This is a true story: A few weeks ago I overheard a college-aged son tell his mother that he got into one of the two classes he really wanted to take in the fall.
“Which one?”, she asked.
“The art class!” he replied, his voice full of excitement.
“I don’t care about THAT! I want to know if you got into the REAL class, you know, the math class!”, she said scornfully.
The gods of art- and I- wept.
Teacher Appreciation Day was a few weeks ago and numerous friends on Facebook posted about how art teachers are not considered to be “real” teachers. This attitude- that visual art, music and performance are not as important as other fields of study- is ridiculously pervasive in our culture.
I believe that this is, in part, because those of us in the arts have not done an effective job at educating those who don’t already love the arts as to their value. When we talk about their value, we tend to talk among ourselves about it, which is like preaching to the choir. Or we talk about it in terms that don’t speak to non-artists. We shake our heads in disbelief, but don’t attempt to step outside of ourselves and make a concerted effort at educating others in ways that will resonate and stick.
How can you make a convincing argument to an engineer that making art can facilitate and enhance the learning of math, for instance? My favorite example of how this can be done comes from the way that Waldorf education approaches integrating the arts, math and science. Waldorf schools initially introduce math and math concepts by teaching young children how to knit before they put pencil to paper. In so doing, the kids are learning how to add, subtract, multiply and divide (stitches and rows). As they knit, they are doing mathematical equations in their heads and creating with their hands, which prepares them for learning how to do it on paper. The items they knit are beautifully colored art objects, of which they are rightly proud.
On a different educational level, a few years ago I read about Daina Taimina, the Cornell University math professor who knits and crochets objects to illustrate hyperbolic space to her graduate students. Her artwork is exhibited all over the world now. How she thinks and what she does is a perfect example of how art and science belong to the same worlds. And we artists need to get better at explaining and illustrating that in concrete ways, or stories like the one I told at the beginning of this post will just be told endlessly until the end of days.
The conversation we are having in the US about importance of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education should really be a conversation about STEAM:
(Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics) education. But until we artists make an effective case about the importance of art in relation to other areas of learning, we will never have a seat at that table and will always be considered expendable.